6 Backdoor Pilots That Never Took Off

CBS
CBS

A "backdoor pilot" is a term used in the TV industry to describe the use of an established TV show to test the waters for a proposed new series. Unfortunately for television-makers, they don't always work out—as these wannabe series prove.

1. KELLY'S KIDS

During the final season of The Brady Bunch, the Brady family generously relinquished most of a 30 minute episode in order to introduce their neighbors, Ken and Kathy Kelly (portrayed by Ken Berry and Brooke Bundy). The Kellys had adopted three boys—Matt, Dwayne, and Steve—in what must be the minimum amount of time required by California law. Sounds like a rather blah premise until you consider the "groundbreaking" 1970s twist: one of the boys was white, one was African-American, and one was Asian-American. The Brady Bunch creator Sherwood Schwartz hoped that Kelly's Kids would be picked up as a series, but the network passed.

2. EMPTY NESTS

Fans of The Golden Girls often rate the episode entitled "Empty Nests" as one of their least favorite installments of the beloved series. This episode featured only peripheral appearances by the four principals, and instead introduced us to previously-never-seen neighbors Rita Moreno and Paul Dooley, who were going through a marital crisis shortly after their college-aged daughter moved out. Empty Nest eventually did become a series, but only after some serious retooling. The producers decided that the original premise would have dissolved into constant bickering between Dooley and Moreno's characters, so they were dumped in favor of a widowed Richard Mulligan, whose adult daughters had moved back home. (Which sort of made the nest not-so-empty, but why quibble over the little details?)

3. AND 4. LIVING DOLLS AND CHARMED LIVES

There's an old show biz adage that says "if you throw enough shi*t against the wall, sooner or later something will stick." The creators of Who's the Boss doggedly tried to make lightning strike twice (and thrice) with limited success. In one instance, Leah Remini—Samantha's best friend from Brooklyn, who'd never been mentioned in previous shows—came to visit. She ended up with a modeling contract by the end of the episode, courtesy of agency owner Michael Learned. Living Dolls, the resultant series, lasted only 16 episodes and is probably remembered best as the launching pad for future Academy Award winner Halle Berry.

Another episode pitted Fran Drescher and Donna Dixon against one another as spokesmodels for a line of pre-packaged Italian food. Charmed Lives, the sitcom ABC created from this equation, lasted a mere three episodes.

5. THE CHATTERBOX

Speaking of Fran Drescher: She hosted her own backdoor pilot in "The Chatterbox" episode of her sitcom, The Nanny. Tracy Nelson portrayed an aspiring actress trying to make ends meet. She was hired as a shampoo girl at the Chatterbox (Fran's favorite salon) owned by Patrick Cassidy, a single dad who seemed to need help raising his son. The show was little more than The Nanny set in a beauty parlor. CBS rejected the new series, deciding that imitation is not always the sincerest form of flattery.

6. FIRST RESPONSE

The Whoopi Goldberg-produced Strong Medicine was one of the Lifetime network's most successful original series. They had managed to land a string of three former major network stars to star in the hospital drama: Janine Turner, Patricia Richardson, and Rick Schroder. No wonder they got a bit cocky by season five and used one episode to launch First Response, an Emergency! clone about the trials and tribulations of paramedics on the job.

First Response centered around Dr. Vanessa Burke, the head of the Rittenhouse Hospital trauma center, who happened to be an African American orphan adopted by a white family. The family's natural daughter (Katie) was a former drug addict/juvenile offender who had allegedly turned her life around and was now an EMT (hired only because her adoptive big sister gave her a break). Viewers needed a blowtorch to cut through all the plot contrivances presented in this pilot, so it's no wonder the show was never picked up.

As you're watching the syndicated reruns of your favorite shows, keep an eye out for an episode that features very little on-screen time of the main stars. It just may have been the producers slipping a backdoor pilot in for your consideration.

Jim Henson's Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas Is Returning to Theaters

The Jim Henson Company via Fathom Events
The Jim Henson Company via Fathom Events

For anyone who grew up with HBO in the 1980s, the holiday season meant two things: Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas and The Bells of Fraggle Rock. Though the beloved Jim Henson classics have been largely confined to home video-only screenings over the years, they’re making their way back to the big screen for the first time via Fathom Events when the Jim Henson Holiday Special arrives in theaters nationwide for a limited, two-day engagement.

More than 600 theaters across the country will host screenings of the Jim Henson Holiday Special on Monday, December 10 (4 p.m. and 7 p.m.) and Sunday, December 16 (1 p.m. and 4 p.m.), which will pair the two specials—both of which have recently been remastered—alongside an all-new featurette, Memories of the Jug-Band.

"Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas was a favorite project for my dad since it included such sweet characters, Paul Williams’s delightful music, and a timeless holiday message,” Cheryl Henson—Jim Henson’s daughter and president of the Jim Henson Foundation—said in a statement about the special, which is a music-filled twist on The Gift of the Magi.

“Also, the special was a great opportunity for him to experiment with puppetry techniques and effects that would be seen in his later works," Henson continued. "[It] is exciting for families to share this holiday classic along with the special episode The Bells of Fraggle Rock, a rare opportunity to see the Fraggles on the big screen, and to introduce these beloved characters to a whole new audience."

On December 18, Sony Pictures Home Entertainment will release Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas on Blu-ray for the first time ever so that you can make the special a permanent part of your regular holiday movie marathon. This news comes on the heels of Emmet Otter's first-ever official soundtrack release, more than 40 years after its original premiere.

Click here to find out the Jim Henson Holiday Special is playing near you, and to pre-order your tickets today.

10 Filling Facts About A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving

Warner Home Video
Warner Home Video

Though it may not be as widely known as It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown or A Charlie Brown Christmas, A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving has been a beloved holiday tradition for many families for 45 years now. Even if you've seen it 100 times, there’s still probably a lot you don’t know about this Turkey Day special.

1. IT’S THE FIRST PEANUTS SPECIAL TO FEATURE AN ADULT VOICE.

We all know the trombone “wah wah wah” sound that Charlie Brown’s teacher makes when speaking in a Peanuts special. But A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving, which was released in 1973, made history as the first Peanuts special to feature a real, live, human adult voice. But it’s not a speaking voice—it’s heard in the song “Little Birdie.”

2. IT WASN’T JUST ANY ADULT WHO LENT HIS VOICE TO THE SPECIAL.

Being the first adult to lend his or her voice to a Peanuts special was kind of a big deal, so it makes sense that the honor wasn’t bestowed on just any old singer or voice actor. The song was performed by composer Vince Guaraldi, whose memorable compositions have become synonymous with Charlie Brown and the rest of the gang.

“Guaraldi was one of the main reasons our shows got off to such a great start,” Lee Mendelson, the Emmy-winning producer who worked on many of the Peanuts specials—including A Charlie Brown Thanksgivingwrote for The Huffington Post in 2013. “His ‘Linus and Lucy,’ introduced in A Charlie Brown Christmas, set the bar for the first 16 shows for which he created all the music. For our Thanksgiving show, he told me he wanted to sing a new song he had written for Woodstock. I agreed with much trepidation as I had never heard him sing a note. His singing of ‘Little Birdie’ became a hit."

3. DESPITE THE VOICE, THERE ARE NO ADULTS FEATURED IN THE SPECIAL.

While Peanuts specials are largely populated by children, there’s usually at least an adult or two seen or heard somewhere. That’s not the case with A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving. “Charlie Brown Thanksgiving may be the only Thanksgiving special (live or animated) that does not include adults,” Mendelson wrote for HuffPo. “Our first 25 specials honored the convention of the comic strip where no adults ever appeared. (Ironically, our Mayflower special does include adults for the first time.)”

4. LUCY IS MOSTLY M.I.A., TOO.

Though early on in the special, viewers get that staple scene of Lucy pulling a football away from Charlie Brown at the last minute, that’s all we see of Chuck’s quasi-nemesis in A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving. (Lucy's brother Linus, however, is a main character.)

5. CHARLIE BROWN AND LUCY STILL KEEP IN TOUCH.

Though they only had a single scene together, Todd Barbee, who voiced Charlie Brown, told Noblemania that he and Robin Kohn, who voiced Lucy in the Thanksgiving special, still keep in touch. “We actually went to high school together,” Barbee said. “We still live in Marin County, are Facebook friends, and occasionally see each other.”

6. CHARLIE BROWN HAD SOME TROUBLE WITH HIS SIGNATURE “AAARRRGGH.”

One unique aspect of the Peanuts specials is that the bulk of the characters are voiced by real kids. In the case of A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving, 10-year-old newcomer Todd Barbee was tasked with giving a voice to Charlie Brown—and it wasn’t always easy.

“One time they wanted me to voice that ‘AAAAAAARRRRRGGGGG’ when Charlie Brown goes to kick the football and Lucy yanks it away,” Barbee recalled to Noblemania in 2014. “Try as I might, I just couldn’t generate [it as] long [as] they were looking for … so after something like 25 takes, we moved on. I was sweating the whole time. I think they eventually got an adult or a kid with an older voice to do that one take."

7. LINUS STILL GETS AN ENTHUSIASTIC RESPONSE.

While Barbee got a crash course in the downside of celebrity at a very early age—“seeing my name printed in TV Guide made everyone around me go bananas … everybody … just thought I was some big movie star or something,” he told Noblemania—Stephen Shea, who voiced Linus, still gets a pretty big reaction.

"I don't walk around saying 'I'm the voice of Linus,'" Shea told the Los Angeles Times in 2013. "But when people find out one way or another, they scream 'I love Linus. That is my favorite character!'"

8. THANKS TO LINUS, THE THANKSGIVING SPECIAL GOT A SPINOFF.

As is often the case in a Peanuts special, Linus gets to play the role of philosopher in A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving and remind his friends (and the viewers) about the history and true meaning of the holiday. His speech about the Pilgrims’ first Thanksgiving eventually led to This is America, Charlie Brown: The Mayflower Voyagers, a kind of spinoff adapted from that Thanksgiving Day prayer, which sees the Peanuts gang becoming a part of history.

9. LEE MENDELSON HAD AN ISSUE WITH BIRD CANNIBALISM.

In writing for HuffPo for A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving’s 40th anniversary, Mendelson admitted that one particular scene in the special led to “a rare, minor dispute during the creation of the show. Mr. Schulz insisted that Woodstock join Snoopy in carving and eating a turkey. For some reason I was bothered that Woodstock would eat a turkey. I voiced my concern, which was immediately overruled.”

10. MENDELSON EVENTUALLY GOT HIS WAY ... THOUGH NOT FOR LONG.

Though Mendelson lost his original argument against seeing Woodstock eating another bird, he was eventually able to right that wrong. “Years later, when CBS cut the show from its original 25 minutes to 22 minutes, I sneakily edited out the scene of Woodstock eating,” he wrote. “But when we moved to ABC in 2001, the network (happily) elected to restore all the holiday shows to the original 25 minutes, so I finally have given up.”

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